Leading Brexiteers are after catharsis, not compromise. Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton explains.
In the UK, a no-deal Brexit has become increasingly likely. This is because Prime Minister Theresa May has decided her priority is to avoid a split in the Conservative Party.
She has calculated that if she tries to get her withdrawal deal through Parliament with Labour Party support — in return for modifications, such as staying in a customs union or softening her stance on EU immigration — the Conservative Party would break up. May would lose around 50 to 100 MPs and cease to be prime minister. Instead, she is trying to win over individual Labour MPs by promising spending in their constituencies — a desperate tactic that corrupts the political system.
Should, or could, the European Union make concessions that would help out the prime minister? Even if Brussels wanted to make changes to the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it has no way of knowing if May would have the political authority to get any such modified deal through the House of Commons.
When one contrasts what leading Brexiteers, such as former UK Brexit Secretary David Davis, were saying a few years ago about what might be acceptable with what they are insisting now, it appears that nothing will satisfy them and that every concession will be met by a new demand. It is catharsis they are after, not compromise. This is the point that needs to be addressed by those who are already laying the groundwork for blaming “brinkmanship” by the EU — particularly Ireland — if the UK crashes out of the European Union on March 29.
What guarantee can these critics offer that any conceivable “alternative” to the Irish backstop — an insurance policy to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — would pass in the House of Commons? These bar-stool critics, and the UK government itself, have so far been shy in coming forward with practical ideas that would get a majority in Westminster and also respect the integrity of the EU single market.
How to Break the Deadlock
One person who has come forward with ideas to break the deadlock is Karl Whelan, a professor of economics at University College Dublin. He says that one of the reasons advanced by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for rejecting the backstop — namely that it would place a barrier in the way of Northern Irish exports to Britain — is without foundation.
He says that under the backstop, exports originating in Northern Ireland would go through a green channel at Belfast port with no checks or controls. Only goods originating in the Republic of Ireland, or further afield in the EU, would have to go through a red channel, where there might be checks. And, at the same time, Northern Irish exporters would have free access to the EU across the open land border in Ireland. They would have the best of both worlds.
Whelan goes on to suggest that, to get the withdrawal deal approved by the House of Commons, the EU might consider two extra concessions.
First, at some future point after the end of the 21-month transition period, Britain could leave the joint customs union with the EU, on condition that Northern Ireland remained in it and aligned with EU goods regulations. This would deal with the Brexiteer fear that the EU is trying to “trap” Britain in the customs union, which is not the case.
Second, voters in Northern Ireland could test the backstop, but after around five or more years there could be a referendum in which Northern Irish voters could decide to opt out of it. Whelan thinks they would opt to stay in it because they would, over the five years, have experienced the best of both worlds that the backstop gives to the Northern Irish economy.
There are two problems with this idea. The suggested referendum could further deepen the orange/green split, and the very possibility of a referendum would introduce a new element of uncertainty for business in both parts of Ireland. Referendums are risky and influenced by extraneous issues. But the delay inherent in his proposal would allow time for the supposed technological fixes for a hard border on the island of Ireland to be road tested.
That said, his referendum would be far less divisive than an outright border poll on leaving the UK altogether, which could be the case in a no-deal Brexit situation. Opinion polls in Northern Ireland suggest that a majority would opt to stay in the United Kingdom if the country were to remain in the EU. Public opinion there would also be equally split under the backstop, but polls show that the people would spring dramatically against staying in the UK if there is a no-deal Brexit.
Under those circumstances, a border poll on Northern Ireland leaving the UK altogether would be hard to resist under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. According to that agreement, such a poll must take place if a majority in Northern Ireland want it. Brexiteer Unionists in Britain are foolishly playing with fire by their brinkmanship and flirtation with a no deal.
European Customs Association
Another idea for breaking the Brexit deadlock in the UK Parliament has come from the German Ifo Institute in a paper published in January. The proposal would involve dumping the entire EU negotiating approach so far, and instead offering the UK membership of a newly-constituted European customs association, through which the British would have influence on EU trade policy and vice versa. It suggests that Turkey might also be invited to join the association.
This idea might mitigate the “vassal state” objection to the UK joining the EU customs union as a simple rule-taker. But I would question the wisdom, and perhaps the motivation, of bringing forward such a proposal at this very late stage as a possible solution to the crisis. The timing is wrong. It might have been helpful if it had been published in 2017 when Theresa May wrote her Article 50 letter indicating the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU, but it has little value as a way of averting a no-deal Brexit now.
If the British Parliament eventually accepts the withdrawal treaty, or if it decides to withdraw its Article 50 letter, the Ifo proposal might be considered then. To have any traction, though, it is an idea that would have to come from the UK, not a German think tank.
But the Whelan and Ifo proposals are designed to help the United Kingdom clarify what it wants. The problem is that UK opinion on Brexit has become so polarized that it is hard to see the House of Commons assembling political will to deliver anything except slipping into a chaotic no deal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.